How Romania Uses Chisinau to Put the Screws on Ukraine

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Christian RUSSU
Taking advantage of Ukraine’s growing dependence in the military, logistics and energy sectors, Bucharest has been quite successful in forcing Kyiv to refuse to actively express its positions in the zone of Romanian national interests
The last two weeks were marked by relations between Ukraine and Romania growing stronger. Kyiv even talked about a new page being opened. Amidst cooling with Poland, it was especially important for our eastern neighbors to break through the corridor to Europe on the southwestern frontier. However, everything has a price – national interests had to be sacrificed in return for Romanian support and the possibility of grain transit. Back in the summer, I criticized the actions of the Romanian authorities in the Ukrainian direction and chastised them for inability to develop an offensive strategy in the then window of opportunity. Now it is time to admit that, given the unfavorable regional conjuncture for Ukraine, Bucharest’s wait-and-see tactics and principled attitude have brought it even greater benefits by mid-October than could be expected from an active foreign policy strategy. One of the main reasons that hindered the surge in Romanian-Ukrainian partnership after the Russian invasion was the accumulated aversion at the highest political level. President Klaus Iohannis was not among the European leaders who would sympathize with the Kyiv authorities only for their anti-Russian rhetoric. The Romanian leader still expected Ukraine to make very particular progress in restoring and expanding the rights of Romanian communities, but, having received in return tougher nationalist policies and infringement of rights, he became one of the consistent critics. Bucharest’s diplomatic demarches and disregard for invitations to Kyiv looked excessive even amidst shouts from neighboring Budapest. It is indicative that last summer, in order to demonstrate the solidarity of European leaders with Ukraine, the French president had to beg his Romanian counterpart to come to Kyiv together. It goes without saying that Romanian diplomacy did not allow other members of the Euro-Atlantic club to slam Bucharest for its insufficient involvement in Ukrainian affairs, which had become a main agenda. Through the efforts of former Minister Bogdan Aurescu, a site was provided for the Crimean Platform meeting in April, a trilateral declaration of Romania, Ukraine and Moldova in the field of security was adopted, and Volodymyr Zelensky left the EU Political Community Summit in Bulboaca with a statement signed with Iohannis supporting Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. However, there was no talk of a qualitative shift in relations between the two countries, which was confirmed by diplomatic and economic scandals involving the Ukrainian establishment, spoilt by international attention. However, now Volodymyr Zelensky himself has to go to Bucharest for media support and a transit corridor for grain, which can be considered a landmark achievement for Romanian politics and a strong-willed victory for Iohannis. At the same time, Zelensky didn’t have even a chance to make a public appearance, his planned speech before the chambers of parliament was cancelled. Moreover, the Romanians succeeded in having their national-ideological demands recognized as legitimate, which Kyiv had always considered chauvinistic and endangering national security.  This is about recognizing the Moldovan language as non-existent in order to allegedly ensure the rights and interests of the “Romanian community in Ukraine” and Moldova’s own rejection of linguistic self-identification. The obligations to legalize the relevant Romanian claims were directly reflected in the joint declaration of the two presidents, along with assurances of comprehensive support and assistance from Bucharest. And in the document signed on 18 October in Kyiv by the heads of government, Ukraine is explicitly ordered to “resolve the issue of artificial distinction between the Romanian and ‘Moldovan’ languages by implementing appropriate practical measures with due consideration of all legal aspects”. Again, the reference to the fact that the official language of the Republic of Moldova is Romanian is made. We can say that Iohannis has sent the Prime Minister to Kyiv to personally inspect the fulfilment of commitments on an issue that is particularly important and principled for the Romanian political elite. Grain corridor as a coercive leverage One of the main news that Zelensky hastened to share from Bucharest was the opening of a new corridor for the transport of Ukrainian grain. Since the termination of the grain deal and the subsequent raids on the Ukrainian port infrastructure, Kyiv has been actively seeking from Moldova and Romania to “open” all possible routes for the transit of its food. Bucharest was in no hurry to counter Russian drone strikes on Ukrainian ports, which it saw as a direct competitor, despite Kyiv’s clear intention to provoke the Romanian authorities into a military response. Since summer, attempts to ensure the passage of grain’s volumes needed by Ukraine have been hampered by organizational and technical obstacles not only on the part of Bucharest. Despite the statements about full readiness to facilitate the Ukrainian agrarian flow by railway transport, the functionaries in Chisinau in fact were quite satisfied with the stably growing revenues from the transit through the narrow bottle neck of bypass routes through our country, including those repaired at the expense of Kyiv (Basarabeasca-Berezino). During the three-month period of agreements between the railways of the two countries, Ukraine failed to receive the promised discount on cargo transportation because our railway workers were physically unable to transport the agreed volumes of cargo. As a result, wagons with Ukrainian grain blocked all border crossings. Chisinau was in no hurry to respond to Kyiv’s proposal to send cargo through the shortest railway route through the uncontrolled Transnistrian region, taking into account both the stance of the suzerain behind the Prut and their own financial interest. On the eve of Zelensky’s visit, Bucharest imposed restrictions on grain imports from Ukraine and Moldova through a licensing instrument, forcing Chisinau to take a similar decision against Ukraine and making it clear to the latter that it would not accept the use of its Moldovan vassal. Such tactics of “twisting arms” with the assistance of Chisinau, as exemplified by implementing the promised but still not yet launched grain corridor, is only one episode of Romania’s rather successful policy aimed at forcing Kyiv to refuse from actively expressing its positions in the zone of Bucharest’s national interests. Ukraine’s growing dependence on its Romanian neighbor in the military, logistics and energy spheres, as well as possible prospects for a regional configuration in the southwestern Black Sea region deserve special attention and will be addressed in further publications.